3 Things We Learned About the Sustainability Movement at Future Earth

Last week, I attended a three-day workshop held by Future Earth's Systems of Sustainable Consumption and Production (SSCP) knowledge action network at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) in Annapolis, Maryland. If that sounds bewildering, you're not alone. Half of the first day was spent just explaining the institutional context of the workshop.

I'll give you the short version. Future Earth is an open, international network of academic research projects focused on transition to a sustainable world. It's an umbrella organization formed in 2015 to support these projects, foster collaboration between them, and serve as a bridge between the research community and the outside world for 10 years. It's funded by a consortium of foundations, government agencies, and academic institutions from around the world. There are 22 research projects linked by knowledge action networks (KANs) in nine areas including the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals, and the one I've joined, SSCP.

While the individual research projects are the raw materials of Future Earth, the knowledge action networks are the connective tissue along with the global secretariat and research hubs in all the major regions of the world. This structure is supposed to give Future Earth the ability to coordinate research across scales, geographies, and disciplines, which is arguably essential to a global transition to sustainability.

The purpose of the workshop was to further develop the SSCP KAN's research and action agenda and prepare for formal recognition by FutureEarth, which could lead to significantly more support for the research projects in the SSCP KAN. The reason I was invited to join is because Shareable, where I work, has a unique window into new, sustainable ways to consume and produce based on sharing.

Okay, that might not seem like the short version, but trust me, it is. That's arguably my first lesson — that the scale and complexity of the transition effort is daunting. Future Earth is just one of many efforts, and if you can believe it, it's trying to create some order from the chaos. But let's not start there… at least officially. Below are my top three lessons from an intellectually-rich workshop:

1. The social sciences don't matter much in the sustainability world   

The social sciences, which is where the SSCP's KAN is situated academically, is at the bottom of the hierarchy in the research world, including in the context of transition and climate change. Hard sciences are at the top. They get the large majority of funding and attention. Thus, solutions are highly technical (renewable energy technologies, geo-engineering, carbon taxes, etc.) and largely removed from the average person. Relatively little funding and attention is given to behavioral, social, economic, and political factors. Social scientists are fighting to get a seat at the table. The SSCP's knowledge action network hopes to put a dent in this deeply embedded institutionalized bias.

2. And that's a big problem, particularly in cities

The above is a big problem because 70-80 percent of resource use and greenhouse gas emissions come from our choices around buildings, transportation, food, and appliances. Our choices are shaped by a broad institutional context that includes behavioral, social, economic, infrastructural, and political factors. The source of the problem of unsustainable consumption and production can be best understood and addressed by these human factors, because after all, this is a human problem, not a strictly technical one. We are the problem.

The focus on technical solutions is all too often treating symptoms (carbon emissions, use of nonrenewable energy, etc.) rather than causes (us). This has lead the SSCP's KAN to adopt a "strong view" of SSCP, meaning that deep structural change in society — including culture, policy, and built environment — is required to bring consumption in line with resource limits while promoting equality. With this comes a focus on cities, which are now the primary drivers of consumption and inequality. Technical solutions and behavior change are necessary, but not sufficient. The SSCP's KAN believes we have to dramatically re-configure how we live and work to get the needed change. For this reason, there should be architects and urban planners in this KAN. Urban design, zoning, and building codes largely determine the shape of a city, which in turn has a big influence on the levels of resource consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.

3. We might as well transition to a sustainable world because the consumption party is ending anyway

Eva Alfredsson of the Swedish Agency for Growth Policy Analysis shared a paper at the workshop that revealed a consensus among long-term forecasters that economic growth is going to stagnate if not decline in the 21st century. It undermines some fears about transitioning to sustainable modes — for instance, that if we dramatically reduce consumption, the economy might crash. Well, the economy is probably going to slow significantly anyway because we're hitting lots of hard barriers like natural resource shortages, demographic changes, growing environmental costs, and more, according to this paper. So, we might as well get on with sustainable production and consumption. There's nothing to lose.

At the conclusion of the workshop, a representative of Future Earth's global secretariat praised the SSCP's KAN for its cooperative nature, which stood out among other networks, especially in the hard sciences. I experienced a good vibe, too. The core members of the KAN — Maurie Cohen, Halina Brown, Philip Vergragt, and others — were friendly, encouraging, and genuinely interested in my work at Shareable. I look forward to contributing to the SSCP KAN and helping people — and the social sciences — become a bigger part of the transition to a sustainable world.

Header photo courtesy of Future Earth